A few years ago, my taste in music went through a metamorphosis. In the mid-to-late ’00s, I became uninterested in hip hop. Eminem began to suck. Wu-Tang Clan got old. Lil Wayne’s popularity increased. I thought I enjoyed dudes like Mos Def and Talib Kweli, and I did for a bit. Mos Def put out some soulful tracks, and freestyled like his life depended on it, while Talib Kweli’s conscious raps provided some perspective. But there comes a time when one wants to enjoy the content. It’s difficult to enjoy music when half the time it’s about how terrible the world could really be. I needed a change, and I had already gone through my classic rock phase, so that change would have to come within hip hop.
Boom. I don’t consider myself a hip hop region racist, but before turning to an emcee from Alabama, my favorite artists were born and bred in New York. That shouldn’t be a crime. Hip Hop was born in the Bronx, and having pride for your brethren is nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone should support their hometown heroes.
I love Nas, and the Wu-Tang Clan. You got some Big L? Turn that shit up. Biggie Smalls? Don’t mind if I do. Some folks believe Dipset was the peak, when in actuality the peak was “Mo Money Mo Problems”. Dipset just extended the run of mediocre rappers making passable songs. So they get props for that. But the combination of breaking away from monotony of political rap and the shit being produced in New York made me turn to the south.
I’m not gonna front. Before Yelawolf, I dabbled with T.I. but I hadn’t gone full blown south yet. While T.I. represents the rags to riches story of a debonaire, Yelawolf represents the rags to rags story of the south I find endearing. Although his music contains southern influences such as Outkast and Lynyrd Skynyrd, he also draws inspiration from Group Home and the Beastie Boys. His eclectic style has led to a range of collaborations from Raekwon the Chef to Ed Sheeran.
Yelawolf first broke into the scene in 2005, when he released Pissin’ in a Barrel of Beez. Later that same year, he dropped Creekwater, his self-produced debut album. Creekwater helped Yelawolf find his abrasive and energetic voice, which led to a home in Columbia Records. Or so he thought. After releasing “Kickin,” the first single for his Columbia debut (Fearin’ and Loathin’ in Smalltown, U.S.A.), Rick Rubin fired his ass after Yelawolf decided not to perform in front of thirty or so A&R people. But some good came out of that. Yelawolf made some friends, and one of them is Kawan Prather (KP), a member of the Dungeon Family, and a senior executive of Ghet-O-Vision. Ghet-O-Vision is a label under the umbrella of LaFace Records, where Outkast, TLC, and Goodie Mob got their starts. Thirteen years ago, KP put Ghet-O-Vision on the map when he signed an up and coming rapper named T.I. Fast forward to 2009 and KP made another under the radar signing by inking Yelawolf to a deal.
The association with Ghet-O-Vision led Yelawolf to in-house producer Will Power (SupaHotBeats), and together they released Trunk Muzik, the mixtape that created the buzz Yelawolf was looking for. The buzz made it to Interscope, and eventually Shady Records, where Yelawolf now calls home, along with his own upstart label, Slumerican.
So what makes Yelawolf unique? Some rappers are as unpatriotic as they come, spending money on Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Yelawolf would rather brag about his propensity to spend his cash at an American staple:
“Put a stack in my pocket and then blew it at Wal-Mart
On a jacket, a pistol, and a packet of blow darts”
– That’s What We On Now
His confidence far outweighs his bank account:
“Any stage, rip it any way, the independent way, look, have you seen his Js
Footwork, send ’em in a rage, feelin’ like a millionaire on minimum wage
Don’t need a Mercedes to take your girl, my Chevy is sick, hurl
I let her play with my mullet, while she sip syrup”
– Lemonade Freestyle
But being poor isn’t the only thing that makes Yelawolf appealing. It’s also his ability to paint a picture with words like William Carlos Williams himself:
“I’m Alabama’s own buddy
Flinstone Caprice, 1987 cuddi
Backyard moonshine steel
Methadone laboratory real
Can I keep it crystal clear?
Chipped tooth type of people
Who wanna see you killed type of evil
Confederate flags, I see ’em
In a truck with the windows down
Why is he playing Beanie Siegel?
Cuz his daddy was a dope man
Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t talk about
Moving keys of coke man
Ain’t no such thing as a free bird
Billy’s got that street work
And he’s packing a nasty heater
Trailer home trap spot
Chevys on the center blocks
Still doing donuts
In the gravel parking lot
Gold ropes, cousins in a group home
And he knows every word to every Yelawolf song, bitch”
– I Wish f. Raekwon
I was only going to quote a couple of lines from that verse but the dude has a way with words. In just about twenty lines, Yelawolf is able to capture the essence of his hometown (Gadsden, Alabama), and the dichotomy of race relations creating conflict in the perception of his own identity.
So while Yelawolf isn’t going to dedicate an entire song to the shortcomings of neo-liberalism, he doesn’t shy away from what’s real in the world today:
“Single mother child raising
From a stripper pole swinging
Daughter’s in the red light
Coats for the cold season
She don’t speak, no reason why
Because no one will ever know”
– Made in the U.S.A. f. Priscilla Renea
What’s also real about Yelawolf is his goofiness, corniness, and self-awareness. I don’t think there is another rapper out there who has made songs about borrowing a rich dad’s car, cunnilingus, and the over the top zeal for being a redneck. The latter makes up about half his discography. I view rappers as actors because seventy-five percent of the stuff they say can’t have happened. They’d be in jail. But Yelawolf is a rare breed. There ain’t a more authentic rapper who has come to grips with who he is more than Yelawolf. He isn’t even the gangster in his song “Gangster.” The dude may exaggerate the truth or make himself seem trashier than he really is, but he won’t flat out lie. Now, you’re obviously thinking, ‘how the fuck would you know?’ You’re right. I don’t. But who would lie about this:
“Man this fuckin’ bitch
Took off, fuckin’ with some college graduate
Punk-ass, Abercrombie wearin’ motherfucker
Left me broken hearted in the Chevy
It’s all good though, know why
I got me bitch”
– Love Is Not Enough
Now all of these lines are heartwarming and amusing, but would fall flat with the wrong voice. Fortunately for Yelawolf, he’s been blessed with a rapid-fire flow and amazing breath control. His enunciation, saddled with a melodic cadence, allows him to transition from rap to song without a hitch. Think Bone Thugs-N-Harmony:
The ability to switch at a drop gives him the ability to ride any type of beat. This skill set makes him the most versatile rapper in hip hop today. That same ability is also why he may not appeal on a larger mainstream scale. Most rappers stick to one formula in order to please their fanbase, and maintain a level of consistency. When that rapper steps out of his comfort zone, or decides to push the boundaries, some fans may be turned off, which is what happened to Kanye West after the release of Yeezus.
Yelawolf has released twelve different records. And when I say different, I mean different. One particular EP revolved around the use of a fiddle. Arena Rap infused country and rap to produce its own genre that is probably undefinable in the circles of hip hop. In Psycho White he collaborated with Travis Barker for a punk-rap EP. That disc included a reggae song. He dedicated a mixtape to classic rock in Stereo, and stuck to 808s and the backwoods of Gadsden in Trunk Muzik. While Radioactive was a failed attempt at popular music, he bounced back by spitting over long time producer Will Power’s spacey synth laden beats on Trunk Muzik Returns. That type of ambition and experimentation can be rewarding or detrimental for his mainstream aspirations. Yelawolf is either going to end up a gifted artist with an ear for music, making refreshing albums for his small but loyal fanbase, or by the end of the year we’ll see kids sporting mullet mohawks.
Photo credit for cover image to: Michelle Grace Hunder / www.michellegracehunder.com